Anger, frustration, sadness, heartbreak. The air in the theater felt heavy. It was as if you could feel the emotions of the audience dance around you from one side of the room to the other.
These were the powerful reactions from the crowd following the Institute for Contemporary Art’s recent screening of Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland. The second installment in their new Cinema Series, the documentary explores the mysterious death of the political activist, a 28-year-old African American woman who, after being arrested for a traffic violation in a small town in Texas in July 2015, was found hanging in her jail cell at the Waller County Jail just three days later.
The screening was organized by Enjoli Moon, the Adjunct Assistant Curator of Film at the ICA, and was accompanied by a panel discussion with members of Sandra Bland’s family, the family’s lawyer, Cannon Lambert, and one of the film’s directors, David Heilbroner.
Bland’s death was ruled a suicide, but made national news and sparked protests and outrage from the public, disputing the cause of her death and alleged police brutality. Ten days after Sandra’s death, Heilbroner, along with fellow filmmaker Kate Davis, started working with the family’s legal team, following the two-year battle between Sandra’s family and Texas authorities. With permission from HBO, the event was one of few, if not the only, premature showings of the film, which won’t be released on HBO networks until the winter.
At the film’s conclusion, we needed a moment to take it all in, and thankfully we were given one. Following the end of the film, Moon asked everyone to take a moment to themselves. Amidst the silence, you could hear the deep sighs, the shuffling of tissues, and noses sniffling, but the silence did not last long. Over my left shoulder came the voice of a woman who requested we all say Sandra Bland’s name. Her voice was commanding, but the pain she was feeling was not lost in her words. Moon led us as a group to say Sandra’s name together…”Sandra Bland.”
“’Say Her Name’, in it of itself is a declaration to make sure that women, especially women of color, who are victims of police brutality that their voices and their memories are not forgotten,” Moon told RVA Mag in an interview ahead of the film on why she choose to screen the documentary.
After playing the wallflower journalist, quietly observing the activity during this screening, I can confidently say this film is going to shake the very foundation of how people respond to stories such as Sandra’s. To hear audience reactions in real time with the film, to bear witness the standing ovation Sandra’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal received upon her entry to the theater, and to be entangled in the call and response nature between the words Reed-Veal preached and the audience was both prevailing and agonizing.
This film cuts deep. In fact, the pain is so excruciating, Moon informed audience members at the start that several of the family members could not bear to watch the film. It was understandable. Sandra Bland’s self-titled internet series “Sandy Speaks,” where she provides personal anecdotes and opinions related to issues of injustice against black people, helped to guide us and unfold her story through her voice. Imagine witnessing a film containing such videos knowing the light and passion within your daughter or sister’s eyes was gone forever.
The Q&A following the film proved to be the key that fit the lock, allowing people to air out the emotions building up inside of them. The tension in the room began to disintegrate as the family spoke and conveyed how they navigate their suffering. Reed-Veal’s attitude felt most contagious, the fire in her heart fueled by her continued search for justice burned bright, but paired nicely with her southern decorum and charming sense of humor. She was intent on making her points but was sure not to leave us without some good laughs.
Of the messages communicated to the audience during the Q&A following the film, the point driven home was, ‘Find your voice and then use it,’ in the words of Reed-Veal. If one message is clear throughout this film, it is the power of the individual voice. It was the power of Sandra Bland’s voice to speak out against injustice via social media, it is the power of her family’s voice to speak out against the injustice done to her, and it is the power of our voices to spread the word regarding this tragedy and encourage everyone to Say Her Name.
This film came to Richmond at an important time, when asked about the film’s relevance to our city, Moon had this to say: “When you look at the Sandra Bland Bill, and that having to do with mental health issues and how the police engage, when we look at Marcus Peters’ death that just happened, I think it makes it even more relevant in the Richmond story,” Moon said. “I think as Richmond continues to change as a city, we are becoming a more gentrified city and so with that we need to make sure that police value all lives and realize that all communities and people within those communities matter and all lives carry the same weight, and I think that in Richmond we have done a good job of that, and I hope that we continue to do so.”
The screening took place exactly three years after the initial arrest of Sandra Bland and will continue to tour until HBO’s release.